There are many lessons that we have learned so far from the global pandemic. An emerging lesson, one which Auntie Jacinda emphasises every day, is that our own actions, collectively, can make a difference.
I have talked before about the neolib-killing aspects of COVID-19. The covid teaches us that, when the chips are down, only collective action will work. This lesson has been slowly absorbed over past decades because of the environmental crisis of global warming, but also continues to be resisted strongly by some at the political level.
Neoliberalism requires individualism at all levels: psychologically, socially and economically. Although I am not a psychologist, I want to look a bit more closely at the psychological requirements – the mindset – of people in neoliberal society.
I also want to distinguish neoliberal thought from the kind of authoritarian populism that constitutes Trump, Bolsonara and the pre-covid Boris Johnson (I have great hopes for a changed Boris on his return). Neoliberal leadership does not require populism, simply the unrelenting privileging of market forms over the collective, the state. Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson both always had this in their minds. Psychologically, they justified their actions on the basis that a period of pain would lead to gain for all.
As it dragged on over the past thirty years, the psychological dissonance of knowing that neoliberal forms did not benefit all was resolved in a growing view that the losers, those below the poverty line, those of colour, those in prison and all the other disreputables deserved their fate. If only they had been better, brighter, stronger, faster or more motivated, they too would have ridden the neolib wave.
In truth, psychologically, neoliberal psychology contained the seeds of its own demise. As the wealth of nations was concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, and as the evident winners became a smaller and smaller pool, questions must arise in the human mind about the efficacy of the approach in rewarding individual toil.
It has always been puzzling in New Zealand how popular neoliberalism is. Max Rashbrooke’s work has, for years, demonstrated overall and, through his online calculator, for individuals, that 90% of us are worse off under neoliberalism. Thus the project is supported by very large numbers of people who are poorer because of it. All I can say is that the human capacity for self-delusion is very deep, including our ability to believe we are better off as our resources drain away. And political hegemonies are, of course, built on that flaw of human psychology.
Neoliberalism feeds on the oxygen of stories of inequality- of how the rich get richer, and of the plight of the poor. Beneficiaries are often pitted against workers in such accounts. The National Party has, in the past, gained a lot of political ground through contrasts of this kind, whether they be based on source of income or race (the iwi/kiwi billboards and the rise and fall of Don Brash).
Labour has furthered the neoliberal project without such an overt discourse of denigration (mostly) and has shown itself capable of ‘doing’ neoliberalism while preaching social democracy.
Events such as the Christchurch earthquakes, the Mosque killings and, now, the pandemic, require the overt rejection of the neoliberal project. There is no saying “they deserve what they get – if only they had tried harder” when the ground is shaking, the guns are blazing or the virus invades.
There has, rightly, been a lot made of those who have flouted the lockdown rules. This is what you would expect of neoliberal man. In flouting the rules you get ahead, become a Trump or other kind of mogul. Rule flouting, as long as one doesn’t get caught, is a desired psychological trait of neoliberalism. Rules, after all, derive from the ‘deep state’ of the corrupt socialist order. If you do get caught, the neoliberal society has been loath to punish the rich.
Indeed, it is likely the biggest flashpoint of the lockdown will come this weekend as people who have ‘worked hard and earned’ their holiday homes are prevented from populating them. The most interesting aspect of that confrontation arises when local communities plead with holiday home owners not to come into their district and bring the coronavirus with them. Without that support, the government may have questioned the political cost of criminalising the wealthy middle classes in this way.
The success of the government’s strategy in squashing the covid curve here has depended upon competitive behaviour and the ability to act freely being subsumed to the greater good. This is part of what people mean when they say everything has changed.
Looking forward, we are not looking for a return to the neoliberal norm. We require a nation-building state as the basis of the rebuilding. For what needs to be rebuilt will not only be the unemployment and economic losses caused by the virus, but our very state itself. Cometh the hour, cometh Jacinda Ardern and a new social democratic state, 1935 over again but better, forged initially on borrowings but, over time, by a new and strong economy, higher taxes for the rich and a strong state. We have been psychologically prepared for this by the virus: the rest is up to us.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.